Refuting Gaia

It was the radical ecologist James Lovelock and his “Gaia Hypothesis”, which — in the mid-90s — persuaded me that Global Warming was in fact, a myth perpetuated by ignorant greenies who had only themselves to blame for not listening to the planet.

Mother Earth, Gaia, Terra Firma, call it what you will, was far more intelligent than we could ever imagine. In fact Lovelock’s thesis, like Peter Russell’s’ “Global Brain”, predicted a form of eco-sentience — an intelligent response to climate change that would somehow prevent the warming of the atmosphere — since, with rising temperatures, would come increased cloud cover, which would in turn deflect the rays of the sun, resulting in less incoming ambient energy and consequently planetary cooling.

In fact increased CO2 levels would translate into an ideal environment for plant life, as a recent article published by Time magazine affirms: “From mosquitoes that carry tropical diseases such as malaria, to plants that produce allergenic pollen, scientists are finding that a warmer CO2-rich world will be very, very good for plants, insects and microbes that make us sick.” A fact welcomed by deep ecologists who eschew anthropocentrism – the view that humans are at the center of the universe.

And as conservatives and right-wing environmentalists proposed, “another Ice Age” was as likely as Earth turning into another Venus, where temperatures raged beyond the capacity for life as we know it. Gaia Theory as it is now known, sits alongside Earth-Centered Misanthropism (from misanthrope, n, a person who detests humankind) and those who oppose the Anthropological Cosmological Principle, (which postulates that the Earth is where it is, precisely because We are Here) as a useful, but paradoxical cosmology.

The Gaia Hypothesis has never been proven, which is why it is still an hypothesis or theory. However it does allow one to conceptualise the planet as a living organism, and for research to be conducted along similar lines. Whilst we toyed with a subject which had over the past few decades, taken on a metaphysical dimension, the hard labour of Earth Science would still have to take its course – ice-cores would need to be drilled, glaciers would have to be measured, and climate change-over-time would fast become a point for budgets and analysis.

I stopped debating the issue in international forums, dabbled with Extropianism, which saw boundless expansion and not systems meltdown i.e. entropy as the basis for life, and contented myself with the fact that the experts had not yet decided on the science, least of all the cosmos. It is odd therefore, to encounter Lovelock’s remarks (The Revenge of Gaia) about an unproven theory, as the basis for a critique by the pro-nuclear camp, who, following upon his assertion: “we need emission-free energy sources immediately, and there is no serious contender to nuclear fission,” then goes on to make the bizarre statement that there were no more than 75 deaths attributable to Chernobyl.

What Lovelock really means is – only 75 deaths can be attributed to high doses of ionizing radiation, (direct linear link) since, like all current WHO sponsored studies, the effect of low-level ionizing radiation (indirect, non-linear link) has already been ruled out by manipulating threshold radiation levels and the baseline research of epidemiologists. To accept the cumulative effect of radiation, is to admit that the protagonists of nuclear fission, and the industry in general are guilty of the crime to which they have been charged by Dr John Goffman Dr Arthur Tamplin, Dr Greg Wilkinson et. al.

Given that most forms of radiation may be measured in half-lives, and exceed human life-span, can one afford to take the risk of proving 5 x 10 = 10 x 5? (in other words, 5 doses of 10 millisieverts = 10 doses of 5 millisieverts). While low levels are better for you, they are not safe. If one had to take the effects of low level ionizing radiation into account, the 30 000+ Chernobyl victims touted by the Times and BBC would become more apparent (this figure is taken from a baseline of 500 million exposed) as too attempts by the industry to disclaim any responsibility for emissions.

In fact a 2006 Greenpeace report revealed that the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancer cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers. The report involved 52 respected scientists and challenges the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report, which predicted 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident “as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering”.

The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

Without the possibility of nuclear insurance — insurance assessors are loathe to provide cover to the industry — laws are needed to indemnify nuclear plants (and nuclear-related disasters) against liability claims, contradicting those who seek to promote the industry as clean and carbon-friendly. It is only via a perverse form of intellectual tinkering that science manages to disregard the cumulative effect of low-level ionizing radiation, since such radiation does not carry a signature – Made during Windscale Fire of 1956.

Radiation is not only carcinogenic, but also mutenogenic. In other words, the human genome adapts, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is for ethicists to decide.

Without access to unbiased epidemiological research, peer-review mechanisms and nuclear scientists who are not already implicated in the atomic industry, one can only sit by and pose questions & objections related to the calibration of equipment and methodology used by cynics like Lovelock to eliminate the victims of low-level ionizing radiation, all of whom have been excised from UN reports with a master-stroke of a pen.

It is for similar reasons one needs to pose questions about routine emissions of Strontium90 and Ceasium137 from South Africa ’s own Koeberg facility which have been given the stamp of approval by the DEAT. Despite legal safety limits continually having to be raised to accommodate these emissions, the plant does not operate within the parameters for which it was designed, and the debate about low level ionizing radiation and baseline thresholds refuses to go away. In the mean-time, we are sacrificing our Swartland wheat and dairy and West Coast fishery, creating a cycle of contamination that accumulates up the food chain, arriving in our daily milk and cereal.

Can we not demand a nuclear-free breakfast? Instead of a broad ecological critique that excludes nuclear contamination, we are rapidly falling victim to the machinations of systems thinking and a technological mindset that has the capacity to put atomic toasters, nuclear ovens and uranium oxide in every household, while allowing industry to explore the “asbestos of the future”. Perhaps this is because our cosmologies have failed and as some theologians put it “science does not have a soul”?
Can one afford to sacrifice life in exchange for profit whilst tinkering with nature, the very building blocks of existence?

The answer is not simply more science. In fact the past decade, with all its promises of technological achievement, may be still seen by those living in the future as one of the less edifying moments in human history. Uranium Cliff’s and Millennium Goals aside, there are critical issues faced by the advent of deep technologies such as molecular biology and the problem extends from the nuclear sciences across the board to those involved in nuclear medicine, nano-technology and the potential for unleashing chain-reactions involving common household detergent.

The supposed “blue-sky” technologies promised by such optimistic accounts as the Human Genome Project and genetic sequencing look increasingly cloudy, as does South Africa’s claim to be at the forefront of nuclear research. A “fusion reactor” and atomic accelerator are all in the offing according to iThemba Labs which is providing “experience in accelerator construction, operation, maintenance and application for nuclear particle physics research, isotope production and particle therapy patients.”

The Problem with “Whole Earthism”

As Stewart Brand, a staunch advocate of human-scale architecture, once put it: Information Wants to be Free i.e. the truth will inevitably come out. Since Brand is possibly the foremost Gaian Theorist, having promoted Lovelock unstintingly since his words appeared in the 1980 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, I will address, here, some issues to consider about his work.

After attaching himself to the Information Age, Brand became obsessed with time, and what he termed the Long Now. A far cry from human scale architecture, right livelihood, bioregional restoration and sustainable land-use topics, all of which had graced the early issues of Co-Evolution Quarterly.

The Clock of the Long Now ticks over once every millennium and represents, either an extraordinary human folly of the kind inherited from New England colonials, or as Brand would have it, the kind of time-scale needed to look at global systems change within the framework of an existence that is bound to outstrip humanities ability to comprehend, let alone survive.

In an obvious rapture to the technological Singularity (the point at which our technology outstrips our capacity to understand), and in deference to more philanthropic projects such as the All Species Catalog, one necessarily admits an expression of deep-felt admiration for much of Brand’s work, influenced as it is by the work of Buckminster Fuller, who coined the term “Spaceship Earth” to describe what the planet looks like from outer space.

Unfortunately, like so many Practitioners of Gaia, Brand’s, supposed fulminations on the subject of climate change, possessed as they are by a sense of impending doom and unhappiness with our human scale, have now been taken as carte blanche by a few environmentalists – the Patrick Moore’s & John Ledger’s of this world. There is no doubt that Brand is a first-rate ecologist – he is also a trained biologist and US military officer. As the brains behind the Point Foundation’s Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), Brand’s early visions inspired a generation of back-to-the-earthers and influenced much of what was published on the subject during the late eighties and early nineties.
Then along came the Global Business Network, a corporate think-tank which drew much criticism from eco-activists, as too was Brand’s decision to consult for the Pentagon — producing a variety of biologically-based systems-related scenarios, much in the way as South Africa’s own Clem Sunter contributed his own pet subject to corporate-capital.

Clem Sunter would no doubt also support nuclear energy, for the same reasons he would support the continued mining and exploitation of the earth’s natural resources. Having produced scenarios for British Petroleum, Brand is no closer to realizing his goal of an Earth in dynamic harmony.

The only scenario of his to receive anything like a public endorsement is a dystopian view of an information society in an apotheosis of data, depicted by the popular Spielberg film, Minority Report. In it, a highly technocratic, potentially fascist organisation, evolves a pre-emptive strategy known as “pre-crime”, much the same way the Bush doctrine of regime change has translated into extraordinary renditions and a failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

It is for similar reasons that “Greenpeace Co-Founder” Patrick Moore’s strangely prophetic notion: “Three Mile Island was in fact a success story,” really rattles those sensitive to forecasts of the resurrection of atomic energy in an age when we are all too snowed under by information to remember a time when opposing apartheid kernkrag was a clarion call to the anti-apartheid movement and those opposed to the state security apparatus. One can just hear the banners being raised, along with another statement: “Our strategy in Iraq is possibly the best environmental strategy ever…” along with, “we need a better nuke policy.”

As environmentalism matures, as the fin-de-siècle retreats and as our organisations begin to take on new perspectives, perspectives that take into account future generations measured in half-decades and centuries, can we safely say Gaia Theory like Cybernetics and Whole Earthism, reveals any more of the great mystery of the universe? Does environmentalism as such, occupy a better cosmology than literature, philosophy, art and history?

For those like Moore and Ledger, evidently concerned with saving the planet at all costs, and willing to sacrifice human-rights in the process, an inevitable see-change in thinking is needed to push aside the agenda of global securacrats and war-on-terror technocrats who seek to govern the world with science and technology.

Think about the irony of South African uranium ending up in war-munitions bound for the Gulf? Time, perhaps, to let go of a mode of thought that has allowed depleted uranium, extracted from the metal mined in our own country, to decimate entire populations, whilst giving politicians a sense of plausible denial?

David Robert Lewis is an organic intellectual, cognitive dissident and activist-at-large. He has opposed nuclear energy for twenty years and is a founding member of Earthlife Africa.